Cytotoxic T cells, also known as killer T cells, patrol the body to detect and destroy cells that are damaged, cancerous or infected by viruses. T cells bind to bits of proteins, called peptide antigens, on the surface of other cells. When they recognize foreign antigens, the T cells attack.
But in the case of cancer cells this recognition does not always work properly. So if scientists can identify antigens that distinguish cancer cells, they may be able to develop therapies that encourage T cells to recognize and destroy the cancer.
To pinpoint these unique antigens, Elias and his team will use mass spectrometry to identify and quantify the vast repertoires of potential antigens on cancer cells. Through a novel combination of techniques, they will be able to detect low-level antigens and those that originate from previously unknown proteins.
While this work could eventually be applied to many types of cancer, initially the researchers will focus on B-cell lymphomas, a convenient model system with clear health relevance. According to Elias, the methods he proposes will “enable us to discover peptides that no one even considers now because they’re just so hard to identify with conventional means. We’re in a great position to leverage all these techniques that are just now reaching their maturity, to do some really exciting biology.”
The Keck Foundation supports innovative approaches in science, engineering and medical research. The foundation also sponsors programs for undergraduate education and Southern California organizations serving children and families.
Molly Sharlach is a science-writing intern in the medical school’s Office of Communication & Public Affairs.
Stanford Medicine integrates research, medical education and patient care at its three institutions – Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford Hospital & Clinics and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. For more information, please visit the Office of Communication & Public Affairs site at http://mednews.stanford.edu/.